Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Slywy's day off

For several weeks my friend J. has been talking about going to White Fence Farm in Romeoville, which he remembers fondly from his childhood. He called me the night of July 3, and we settled on the July 4th holiday for the trip.

Tampier Lake
After he picked me up from the Homewood Metra station, we headed toward Orland Park. From there, we drove north and then took 135th and 131st Streets. Along 131st Street, we passed over Tampier Lake twice. J. had not heard of this 160-acre reservoir lake and was struck by its size and beauty. The places where the road passed over it reminded me of something from home in Western New York, although I'm not sure what—perhaps a place along the scenic route from the South Towns to Niagara Falls.

J. thinks that, if the lake level rises, the road is closed until the water recedes. I wondered if the road was built without elevated bridges because the water level is constant or manageable. Without the elevation of a bridge, I experienced a fleeting sensation of driving on the water that was heavenly.

That aside, the combination of interesting clouds, green vegetation, and sparkling water made it look like a lovely place for a picnic. I read later that Tampier Lake is also a popular boating and fishing destination.

White Fence Farm
To our surprise, it is not hard to find White Fence Farm, which is owned by members of the Hastert family (the people who gave us former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert). I did not know what to expect, although I did anticipate something a little like Apple Holler in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.

Once a 450-acre farm, White Fence Farm seems to have been reduced by surrounding development to the restaurant and carryout kitchen buildings, parking lot, and a relatively small petting zoo area (chickens, goats, sheep, and llamas). All around were office parks and other suburban sprawl monstrosities.

Beyond the animal enclosure was what appeared to be a liquor distributor, a nondescript warehouse building with Bacardi trucks parked behind it. J. did not remember that, and I suspect the open space he recalls was farmland that was sold off. We saw another example of this along the way; we passed a corner planted with what may have been soybeans but also with a prominent sign touting available commercial lots for a future plaza in that very spot.

So White Fence Farm was not at all like Apple Holler, which has some land and which is not immediately surrounded by development—yet.

Still, the restaurant is charming, with numerous rooms decorated with all kinds of nostalgic pieces and memorabilia. Unfortunately, I can't recall the name of the room that we were led to, although I can still feel the glassy eye of what I believe was an elk head staring impertinently at me from the wall.

The service was very prompt, although the server's eyebrow piercings didn't give me a "down home on the farm" feeling so much as an "art school aspirant" one.

As White Fence Farm is known for its fried chicken, that's what we ordered. I'm not keen on fried foods, but this was good, not greasy, although a little bland. The "relishes" (pickled eggs, cole slaw, bean salad, and cottage cheese, along with corn fritters) were good if you like authentic American country cuisine. We also split apple pie à la mode, which was excellent. The service and the food, combined with the hewn wood ceiling beams and the dense décor, made it an enjoyable experience.

It wasn't until the end, though, that I noticed the best part. Although there were two parties of 15+ people in the room, it was not at all noisy. This was probably because there was no music whatsoever thumping away, which meant that no one had to raise his or her voice to talk over it. That alone was delightful.

We checked out the animals, which were locked up. J. was determined to feed them pellets from the vending machine, but although the goats came over and showed interest in us, they fled when I showed them the pellets. Apparently, they can do better. The sheep needed to be sheared, especially given the hot weather expected this weekend, but they are kept in no worse conditions than many non-factory farm animals. I do hope the llamas are walked regularly, because the enclosure seemed small for them.

There was some aggression among the goats, one of which seemed to need milking. At least the chickens appeared not to be destined for the dinner plate. One of them snapped up a fly that got too close. That was amazing.

Ile à la Cache
After we left, we passed Ile à la Cache, a museum dedicated to the history of the Indian-French fur trade—an odd and interesting concept. We made a mental note that we might like to visit it someday.

Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve (DuPage County)
At some point, J. must have spotted a sign for Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County because he became determined to see it. We checked out a map in one of the parking lots and discovered that Waterfall Glen surrounds Argonne National Laboratory. We would have to navigate our way around the laboratory to find the parking lot and trail closest to the waterfall. In the meantime, we skimmed the Tick Times, which clued us in as to how inappropriately we were dressed to discourage the little bloodsuckers.

Amazingly, we did find the right parking lot and, after referring to the map, the correct rail. We even made the right decisions at branching points.

To my amusement, when we asked a man walking toward us if he was coming back from the waterfall, he responded with, "Yes, it's about two blocks that way." I told J. that only a city slicker would refer to distance in the heart of the forest in terms of blocks!

By now it was about 45 minutes before sundown, and we noticed how much darker the deep woods are even when the sun is shining and the clearings are bright. The air was still, and the silence was interrupted only by strange bird calls and distant fireworks. In the woods at dusk, it's easier to understand the fear of evil influences that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in "Young Goodman Brown."

When we came to a slight slope, J. muttered, "Oh, boy." I'm heavier than he is, but my Pennsylvania/New York heritage can carry me up all but very steep or very long hills. He managed, but I imagine he's since discovered unknown muscles in his legs.

The waterfall is quite lovely, if not impressive. It is probably less than the height of a man, but it flows noisily over what appear to be artificially arranged slab rocks. A sign mentioned a dam. The surrounding trees are dense, and it seemed a beautifully isolated spot at that time of evening. While J. took photos, I followed the flights and landings of a mating pair of powder-blue dragonflies. That alone was worth the walk.

As we headed back, I laughed to see J. feeling around himself and scratching. The Tick Times had done an excellent job of making him feel like he was covered with ticks. Ah, the power of suggestion.

We had reached one of those points where the trees were dense and the fading light was especially dim when I noticed it—the twinkling lights of hundreds of fireflies against the verdant background, switching on and off randomly so that the woods seemed to sparkle.

We dwelled on the spot for a while to marvel at the effect and agreed that this was more lovely and magical than any fireworks display. To think it happens every summer day in that very spot . . .

With sunset past, we left reluctantly and found our way to I-55, the Stevenson, our route to my apartment. Even here we witnessed an incredible sight—dozens of fireworks exploding on both sides of the expressway the entire length of the drive. There could not have been a more appropriate ending to our 4th of July adventure.

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